View Photo Gallery: In the 68-team NCAA tournament field, Georgetown and Virginia expect to have a shot at battling teams like Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina for a run to the Final Four, and perhaps a national championship.

Remember when fifth-seeded Florida – led by future beloved Washington Wizard Mike Miller – rallied to beat 12th-seeded Butler in the opening round of the 2000 NCAA tournament?

Well, I do. I was selling cheese for Whole Foods back then, but – having won small sums of money in four March Madness pools over the past five years – I had also convinced myself that I was a college basketball savant, destined for Feinstein-like sportswriting greatness. The year before, I had correctly picked three of the Final Four teams (including fourth-seeded Ohio State), and even considered writing a letter – like, with pen and paper – to Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, explaining my incredible prowess and demanding a job at The Post.

That spring, despite a longstanding fondness for SEC teams, I picked Butler to upset Florida in the first round. The Bulldogs led by one with less than 10 seconds left in overtime and had LaVall Jordan — an 83 percent free throw shooter — on the line. My fingers already were reaching for my trusty highlighter, whose moist yellow stripe of success would mark my continued genius.

Then Jordan missed both free throws, Miller drove for a go-ahead layup as time expired, officials confirmed the basket using the new tool of video replay and – two weeks later – the Gators were facing Michigan State for the national championship.

Forget the fact that I wasn’t getting any sweet winner’s checks with which to grow my modest cheese library. It was never about the money.

I remained convinced that I had made the correct pick – that Butler had proven its superiority to Florida – and that all those simpletons racking up five rounds worth of Gators victory points were enjoying false riches, the college basketball equivalent of getting charged a cheaper price for a mislabeled delicacy.

That was around the time I decided to stop filling out NCAA tournament brackets. The entire apparatus, I determined, was based on chance and whim and random last-second shots, and not worthy of my emotional anguish.

Since that year, I’ve filled out approximately 73 NCAA tournament brackets. It’s a hard habit to quit. Last year I made it until about 11 a.m. on the first Thursday of the tournament, before spastically ripping through three or four brackets while sitting in the media room at Verizon Center.

Among my favorite picks, I had seventh-seeded Temple beating second-seeded San Diego State in the second round. The Owls lost in double overtime, thwarting my obvious brilliance. Seeing the dim-witted masses rewarded for blindly picking a higher seed that needed two overtimes to advance – well, it burned. Like acid in the eyes. Boiling acid. Filled with eye-eating microbes.

So I’m done, for real this time. An event that is supposed to be about joy and anticipation and hugging strangers in bars has become an annual twinge of heartburn, the yellow-highlighter stripes of success far overshadowed by each bright red X of despair.

And it turns out I’m far from alone. I recently asked my Twitter followers if anyone has experimented with a bracket-free March, and I was deluged with replies.

“I didn’t fill out a bracket last year for the first time and had a great time watching the tournament,” Michael Gottfried wrote me. “Heck, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the magic of VCU and Butler [otherwise], because if I had filled out a bracket, I would have picked THE TEAMS THEY KNOCKED OUT!”

“It seems that a monkey throwing darts has just as good a shot at selecting winners as I do,” wrote T.J. Connolly, who is entering his third bracket-free March. “I can just enjoy the games, and not just root for the 7 seed because I picked them at the outset.”

“When I would fill out a bracket, the only thing that mattered during the whole tournament was winning the bracket,” Matt Walker added. “I found myself rooting for teams I hated like Duke and UNC, because it meant something to me if they won. Now that I don’t fill out a bracket, I have the freedom to hate the teams I hate.”

All three of these guys are 25, making me think that bracket boycotts are the future. Either that, or my Twitter followers skew young. But I’m not the only one who decided this year is the year. My colleague Clinton Yates announced a bracket boycott on our Web site Friday afternoon, writing that, “For once, I want to see college hoops for what it is, as an adult, without the inevitably biased viewpoint that my gambling brain will force upon me.”

And W. Paul Barrett, a 23-year old from Woodbridge who typically fills out at least four brackets a year, e-mailed to tell me he’s also giving them up.

“Every year it seems I enjoy it less and less — not due to my bracket’s ineptitude, but because I don’t find the games as entertaining when I know there is an underlying motive of winning or losing some office pool,” he explained. “Now, I can see the buzzer beaters and relish the outcome, regardless of which team is on the winning end.”

So unshackle yourselves from bracket-shaped chains, sports fans. (Although if you ignore my advice, don’t forget to enter The Post’s Bracket Challenge, using The Post’s amazing interactive bracket tool as a guide.) Spend the next three days getting ahead at work, instead of agonizing over VCU’s chances to stay hot. Flip on your TV on Thursday afternoon not to seek validation, but merely to enjoy one of the greatest days of sports.

“I want to be entertained, not disappointed,” wrote my colleague Michael Lee, who hasn’t filled out a bracket in more than a decade. “Also, it’s better to be thought a fool when it comes to bracketology, than to fill out a bracket and remove all doubt.”


Enter The Post’s Bracket Challenge.

Need help? Search the Post’s NCAA tournament database.

2012 NCAA tournament bracket.